another suggestion for white people who want to be not racist

After I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, my conversations about racism with my children (we’ve had such conversations since they were able to talk) were much more informed. I don’t believe in sugar-coating the real world, or glossing over truths that make some people uncomfortable. Of course, I do want my children to live in a world that feels safe and I want them to have hope. How deeply I go depends on the moment, how ready my daughters seem, and whether or not I can get myself to shut up.

One thing I tell my daughters is I will always prefer stating my opinion and offending rather than staying quiet when it’s a time for me to speak. They know I write a newspaper column and they know people don’t agree with things I say. In particular, I wrote a column about racism in the Bangor Daily News that starts with two overtly racist and ignorant statements. The intention was some shock value and that may have been a stylistic mistake. The column wasn’t a mistake, though.

Adding to the theme I set out in that first column and in “Ending racism: What White People Can Do,” I want to add this suggestion for white people who, like me, haven’t spent much time with people of color. As I’ve said in my columns and in this blog, I believe a lot of why interpersonal micro-level racism sticks around is because authentic communication is limited by white people’s desperate desire to be not racist.

Does this sound familiar? You feel mildly awkward talking to a person of color and are really angry at yourself for the mild awkwardness but you can’t figure out why you feel weird and you really want to not feel weird because you know there’s no reason to and no matter what you say or do you can’t seem to just be a regular person because you’re so self-conscious about your mild awkwardness and it all becomes a stuttering hyper-friendly over-the-top polite exchange. If it sounds familiar and you hate it, I have a suggestion for you:

Go to twitter, or other social media sites. Do this when you are alone. Search for the hashtag “blackoutday.” Spend time looking at the pictures. Then, look some more. See the variety of people? Look! There’s no awkwardness as you look, the pictures are there for anyone to see.

In the late 80s, I started learning that black and brown people can’t fix my own personal racism, and it’s not their job to tell me what I can or should do. What I do, instead, is look at my own racism—as I tell my daughters, I believe all white people are racist because we benefit from our systems that are inherently racist (we discuss prejudice and bigotry, too, which are different)—and work on it. After all this time, I was surprised that looking at the #blackoutday pictures was such an eye opener for me. The images are powerful and beautiful and surprising. (Tip: just look, don’t try to be involved in the hashtag. It’s not a white people thing.)

Get that awkward staring and fascination that you may experience and so desperately want to resist when you’re with another human being out in meat space. You can help yourself realize that there is an infinite number of different ways to “look black.” It can help you relax and just be with people of color without struggling to be not awkward, or “not racist.”

check yourself, my white friends

Since the late 80s, I’ve been working on and through my own racism. I’ve written about it on my own blog, before it was called a blog, and I’ve written about it in my newspaper column at the Bangor Daily News.

As the news coverage of the Department of Justice’s study of Ferguson continues, I’ve caught myself in old patterns of translating the facts. I invite my white friends to listen to your inner voices. We want racism to be not as bad as it is. We want that so much. So, to make it easier, when we hear shocking statistics we may translate them into less devastating facts. Maybe you don’t do it, but I know I have.

As I wrote in one of my BDN columns about racismthe one with deeply offensive thoughts as the first sentences—I think we well-meaning white people get so caught up in wanting to be not-racist that we aren’t able to engage in authentic relationships with people of color which means we can’t take or even support real action to change (institutionalized) racism.

Here’s the translation I’ve had to use over and over again as I listen to the news stories, using one statistic as an example:

news story: 93% of summons issued for jaywalking were issued to black people.

me: (for a millisecond) probably more black people jaywalked. maybe that’s something that happens more often in black neighborhoods and maybe there’s a non-racist reason why it’s considered such a bad thing.

me: *checks myself* the police are targeting black people for “crimes” and they are not targeting white people for the same “crimes.”

I’ve had to fix my thoughts again and again as I listen to the news. Each time I hear a statistic, my millisecond “please make this not as bad as it is” thought is louder and more easily detected. It flashes away faster, too.

Just like my work a decade ago getting beyond the “please consider me one of the GOOD white people” nonsense, the desire to have our racist systems be not as bad as they are leads me to an easy way out (hearing the statistic and thinking probably they deserved it).

Please consider reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, or listening to the audiobook, or simply listening to Michelle Alexander’s many public presentations. It is the knowledge of her work resting inside my gut that helps me face the ugly truth that I am still trying to avoid the ugly truth about racism in our country.

privilege = having options.

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy examining my own role in racism, classism, and genderism. What I’ve learned is both disgusting and not surprising. I did much of the “work” on racism in the 90s. But then, I stopped.

I get to “stop” if I want to.

As I’ve re-focused my attention (again on racism, more recently on socio-economic class, just touching on genderism), I’ve found myself utterly and completely exhausted by the whole thing. Right now, I feel like retreating into my own little privilege bubble where everything is easy.

I have a choice.

In the 90s, I felt “white guilt” because I didn’t want to be racist. I was out of touch with the actual issues because it was all about me and my experience.

These days, the bell still can’t be unrung. I know that when I retreat into the easy ways, it’s a choice I get to make without many direct consequences. Many, many people don’t have the choice. They have to live with racism, classism, and genderism every day and it’s inescapable.

I’m not sure what I’ll do on a daily basis. I see now that the only way I can really make change is to: 1) listen to people who experience it without the option to take a break *without interjecting my own experiences/perspectives*, and, 2) uncover ways I can help make systemic, institutional level changes and do those things.

But, my god, it’s not easy. I literally can’t imagine how “not easy” it would be if I could never escape the fight.

Why I might not say anything (racism)

Anyone who knows me well knows I’d be more likely than most to boldly, brazenly, even “rudely” object if I witnessed injustice. I don’t worry much about how I’m perceived, relatively speaking, when it comes to social justice. I act.

That said, reflecting on this powerful video, I’ve considered a few reasons why I haven’t spoken up in the past and why I might not in the future.

If you haven’t seen it, check out the video. The woman describes her experience being implicitly accused of trying to pass a bad check simply because she is Black. Her friend (sister-in-law? I forget), a woman who looks white, intercedes and appropriately shames the clerk into better behavior. There’s more to the story, and it’s worth watching.

As I said, on reflection, I’m not sure I will usually say something when I witness racism (or any other -ism). Here’s why:

  1. The woman who stepped up and did the right thing was familiar (family, even) with the woman being mistreated. She knew her so the context was all the more absurd and wrong. This relates to #2.
  2. While I consider fighting racism my business and our fight, the pride people take in “fighting their own battles” is quite strong. I’d be concerned that I’d seem condescending or patronizing if I said something to the clerk. I’d worry the other person might think I didn’t think they could handle things on their own.
  3. If the situation were as “Black and white” as the experience shared in the video, I can tell you without a doubt that I would say something. In fact, that’s a big part of who I am. I risk rudeness when I see injustice. I don’t stay quiet. But, the truth is, the racism I witness (and I witness it a lot) boils down to a gut feeling. The nervous laughter and fumbling of a clerk who doesn’t know how to just be a person with another person and makes everyone involved uncomfortable. A receptionist who is mildly cold to a fellow patient. Or a dirty look that just screams bigotry but no words are exchanged.

That’s it. The racism I witness is almost exclusively of the “plausibly deniable” variety. It’s subtle, insidious, and evil. Standing up and doing the right thing is more complicated than the video above implies. I am not, in any way, condoning staying silent. In fact, if it weren’t for my concern that I might make the object of the racism uncomfortable by stepping in, I might very well get direct with a clerk for the shitty eye glares they give. Can you imagine it, thought? If it were my friend who was getting that cold awkward ugliness, and I knew they’d understand I was using my privilege for good, you can be sure I’d call the bigot out on their bullshit. But, a stranger? a subtle interaction? It’s not so simple.

I’ll be thinking about how to fight those plausibly deniable offenses for a long time. I’ll also be thinking with empathy about the people who don’t have the luxury of just thinking about the offenses, but have to live them every day of their lives.

speaking the unspeakable

It was the hidden brain I was writing about. The way our minds work, using unconscious biases to make it through our day-to-day lives. We have gut feelings we rely on that don’t express themselves with language or logic.

Here’s an article (Psych-Out Sexism: The innocent, unconscious bias that discourages girls from math and science) written by the author of The Hidden Brain giving a practical example of our our cognitive functions affect us in significant ways.

Why was it I chose such racist and specific examples to start my column? I did it to attract attention, of course. I also did it to demonstrate how ugly those fleeting thoughts—typically manifesting more as feelings than discernable thoughts—can be. And, finally, I did it because I wanted to address the case where a child was killed because (in my opinion, regardless of what the courts determined) the shooter was scared of a Black guy. I wanted to show that it wasn’t only the overtly dangerous acts that block us from eradicating racism.

As the days pass, and I mourn the loss brought on by my words, I have considered again and again what I said. My most recent conclusion is that it was easier for me to use racist statements as an example of those unconscious thoughts that influence our behavior than it would have been to use other kinds of examples. Setting aside my interest in addressing the Martin/Zimmerman case, if the piece had been about the sexualization of children, there are certainly horrific nearly-thought thoughts I could share. That, however, would put me at risk of being misunderstood on a level that could threaten my role as a parent.

Racist or pedophile-like thoughts are the easiest examples for me to use because they are the thoughts I have the most experience dismissing as wrong. They are no longer the things that freak me out with a nervous-nellie oh-god-I’m-awful-for-some-reason-I-don’t-know-why feeling. They are stupid, ignorant, bizarre thoughts that rarely ever come to words. When they do, I’m startled. I reject them and move on.

Let’s say I was writing about the hidden brain—how our unconscious biases affect our social interactions—related to transgendered people, or people with physical disabilities, or people in hospice care facilities, or generationally poor white people in West Virginia. In all of those cases, if I were to dig into my mind and come up with words to describe those gut feeling reactions they would be such unfamiliar and newly awful thoughts, I would have a great deal of difficulty expressing them. It would be especially difficult because I have little practical daily living experience with transgendered, differently abled, dying, or rural poor people. I haven’t become mindfully aware of those ugly feeling-thoughts, yet.

That isn’t to say the racist phrases were simple to write, or that I’d ever like to write them again. But, again, I’ve been learning about our cognitive functions (“supporting the Republican platform means you support rapists,” is one of my blog posts about these issues) for a few years. Facing my gross and, frankly, boring white-guilt thoughts made it much easier to free myself from their bondage. And, the same holds true for the unconscious thoughts about the sexualization of children. I’ve got a 10 year old daughter, so I’ve been un-thinking the most shocking quick-thoughts (freaky disturbing feelings) for a long time. Retraining my mind was most successful once I realized what was going on.

As I’ve said a couple times now, I stand by my column. It is not about my own obsession with my own experience. That would be a detraction from… police harassment and brutality/criminal employment practices/redlining based on perceived racial identity/systemic racism in the criminal justice system, or, of course, the list goes on.

We don’t all have those particular disgusting thoughts I shared at the opening of my column. We do, however, all have thoughts that inform our daily lives that would make us quite uncomfortable if we were to examine them closely. I’m committed to championing the idea that we should examine our unconscious biases closely in order to free ourselves from them.